Monday 19 December 2005

Is Public Domain Knowledge Database Ready For Public Consumption?

Wikipedia is the poster child of public domain knowledge database. Found in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, the utilitarian goal of this “free” online encyclopaedia is to provide a platform where the “total” knowledge of humankind can be permanently recorded for prosperity. To keep up to date, this online knowledge repository can be continuously edited by anyone who chooses to contribute. With the increasing use of Wikipedia by the public, critics of Wikipedia have raised concerns about the credibility of such public domain knowledge database where no one truly polices the accuracy of the information within.

In November, the trustworthiness of Wikipedia was seriously called into question in an USA Today exposé by John Seigenthaler Sr., a former assistant of Robert Francis Kennedy, about his discovery of a false entry in the online encyclopedia in which he was implicated in the assassination of both Senator Kennedy and his brother President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Last week, the New York Times reported the perpetrator to be Brain Chase, who entered the false information into Wikipedia as a gag directed against the eminent Seigenthaler family in Nashville where Chase lives. This single act of sabotage exposes the vulnerability of Wikipedia in that the information within can easily be falsified by anyone for unethical gains.

In contrast, the accuracy of Wikipedia on scientific information appears to fair better. In a research paper just published from the prestigious scientific journal Nature, a peer-review comparison between Wikipedia and Britannica Encyclopedia on their contents across a board range of scientific disciplines found that the difference in accuracy between the two encyclopaedias was only small. On average, a scientific entry in Wikipedia contained about four errors as compared with three errors in a scientific entry in Britannica.

The creation of a public domain knowledge base such as Wikipedia is of great benefit to humankind. With proper safeguard to ensure the accuracy of its content, further development of such database should be actively encouraged and not prematurely abandoned because of “teething” problems.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Tech • Under World
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